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Urban unrest: A car burns during anti-Sarkozy riots in 2007 (photo: Mikael Marguerie CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ten years ago I was living just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris’s fashionable Seventh arrondissement. Late one Friday afternoon I decided to go for a walk. I left the building and turned right into the Rue de Grenelle. For the past week or more the riot police had been preventing demonstrators from entering the narrow streets near to the Prime Minister’s residence, about a five-minute walk away, but today things were different. There was a strange smell in the air. It came from a succession of burnt-out cars, left smouldering in the side streets. As I neared the golden dome beneath which lies the tomb of the Emperor Napoleon I saw that all the parked cars — hundreds of them — had had their windows smashed. By now the demonstrators had been corralled onto the Esplanade des Invalides, the police waiting for the cold of night to disperse the assembled mob, but later, when I watched the evening news on television, it was as if the country had descended had descended into near civil war. Trains were not running because demonstrators had blocked the tracks; schools and universities across the country were closed; and Paris’s infamous banlieues had become a no-go zone for the forces of law and order. The cause of all this mayhem was a government proposal to introduce nothing more than a minor change in employment legislation.

Over the past decade things have hardly changed. In recent weeks France’s doctors have been on strike against proposed reforms to the health system. Two senior directors of Air France were mobbed by employees protesting against possible job losses (one having unceremoniously to climb a wire fence to escape his attackers). In Paris rubbish piles up on the pavements as the city’s éboueurs — dustmen to you and me — strike about promotion criteria. Their union wants everyone to be promoted.

And of course France’s hapless President Hollande continues to preside over an economy that stubbornly refuses to grow or to provide any new jobs. This after all is a country where a majority of the young dream of either emigration (preferably to London) or to become government functionaries with guaranteed employment for life.

But it was those scenes of urban unrest ten years ago that came to mind as I read Michel Houellebecq’s controversial and deeply unpleasant novel Submission, now out in translation (Heinemann, £18.99). The novel’s narrator, François, is a university lecturer at the Sorbonne. We first meet him as he labours to complete his doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century Belgian writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of À Rebours, a book that gave us as its hero the exotic aesthete the Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes. François’s life is utterly dreary and cheerless. He lives, we are told, off the last remnants of a dying welfare state: scholarships, free health care and cheap meals in student cafeteria. His many girlfriends are seen as no more than interns, serving a form of sexual apprenticeship. Of the only one he seems to care about, the Jewish Myriam, her greatest attraction is the quality of her blow jobs. “Any single one of them,” François confides, “would have been enough to justify a man’s existence.”

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